The Pentagon’s influential Strategic Forces Committee heard an update on the US military by its longest-serving and highest-profile official, without much drama or diplomatic discussion about thorny issues.
Vice President Joe Biden, in a rare departure from the usual biweekly mini-review of the Department of Defense, was given a combative back-and-forth with his fellow defense senators over his intention to maintain the current force structure and potential scaling back of certain missions.
At one point, he was moved to defend the historical shift in US military strategy from one of counterinsurgency wars and conflict, to one of high-intensity competition and operations like preventing a nuclear threat from non-state actors. But even he could not resist jokes about the dominant genre of his public remarks: “Paddle ball.”
“I’m going to play so hard I’m going to kill you,” Biden told the full Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
He added: “You’re the weakest link in the chain. So you need to understand that you cannot allow a half or a third of your total force to be a force that you cannot use effectively.”
On March 20, the White House ordered the Pentagon to submit a plan to reduce the active force down to 500,000, less than the existing target set in the budget caps known as sequestration, by Sept 30, 2019.
The plan includes re-examining the size of the Army, joint force, and marine corps, with the planned combination of joint commandos, Navy and air power, a boost in private contractors and critical reforms to military personnel contracting.
Defense officials have warned that implementing this plan to cut the force by almost 22,000 troops would have a devastating impact on readiness, the ability to fight and win in future wars.
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When Biden introduced the report to the committee in its usual 10 a.m. hearing, he noted that while the plan was a work in progress, the long-term objective was clear: “I’m not going to introduce it here unless there is a signal that I have given it the confidence of the commander-in-chief.”
Biden noted that the Pentagon’s biggest problem is the reduction in defense spending between 2016 and 2020, and argued that while the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan has reduced the need for military presence, “we have to be even more cautious in how we shrink our forces.”
His overall message was a clear defense of the status quo in which the military is under more attack than ever before, and pointed to the economic and military durability of the US alliance system – a coalition-of-victories based on the Pentagon’s vast reach and capabilities.
“At a time when these allies are under fire, America’s economic might matters,” Biden told senators. “The strength of our military and our coalition is essential to our prosperity.”
He added: “The traditional focus on nation-building is gone. We must develop the capacity to deny entry to territories, and deter conflict.”
Biden used the occasion to highlight the importance of promoting gender equality in the military, which he called “the last bastion of boys club, the last source of civility.” In a reference to the Russia investigation, he added: “The most effective thing we can do to bring stability and peace to the region is to ensure that women have equal access.”
He then urged Congress to stop coddling the executive branch so that the Pentagon can “protect us from failure”.
“The Pentagon needs to show us in this report, that, yes, we need to shrink forces,” he said. “We do not have enough of them. But we have too many of them.”